Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and his lieutenants overpowered guards seeking to transfer them from their luxury prison to a military jail and escaped Wednesday after a gun battle that left two guards dead, officials said.
The escape of Escobar, one of the world’s richest and most notorious men and a suspect in hundreds of murders, was a major blow to the government, which has been unable to counter the strength of the cocaine cartels.
It was in response to reports that Escobar was operating his drug business from the ranch house prison that officials entered the jail Tuesday evening to transfer Escobar and his 14 lieutenants.
But the cartel leader instead seized three of the officials--the warden of the prison, the national prison director and an assistant justice minister.
About 400 army commandos raided the prison at dawn Wednesday, freed the captives and captured five cartel members. But Escobar fled with nine others, President Cesar Gaviria said.
Gaviria, in a nationally broadcast speech late Wednesday, appealed to Escobar to surrender and said there is an outside chance that soldiers combing the property for hidden passages might find him.
At 10:40 a.m, Escobar phoned reporters, saying he was in a prison tunnel and would fight to the death. This call appears to have been a ruse. Gaviria said there was no tunnel.
Escobar and his lieutenants surrendered last year on the condition that they be held at the luxury prison--on a ranch previously owned by drug dealers--and not extradited to the United States, which charges that Escobar masterminded the big cocaine enterprises of the 1980s.
Gaviria ordered Escobar moved this week amid reports the drug lord had bought off his guards and involved them in a scheme to lure Medellin cartel rivals to the prison.
Two weeks ago an airplane flew over Medellin and dropped leaflets claiming that Escobar was ordering the murder of his rivals.
After the hostages were freed, one of them, Assistant Justice Minister Eduardo Mendoza, appeared at a news conference Wednesday at the presidential palace in Bogota.
Trembling and with his clothes dirty and tattered, Mendoza said that when he told Escobar he was being transferred, Escobar “told us we were hostages and that we were going to leave there dead.”
At dawn Wednesday, the hostages were being held on a balcony when the army attacked.
“We heard the first shots and a loud explosion, and someone shouted to kill all of us,” Mendoza said.
“All of a sudden I found a gun at my neck. It was a soldier of the special forces. He took me to a corner of the room and told all of us to be quiet while they disarmed all of the bandits,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said he crawled to safety “through a hallway amid a rain of bullets.”
At least two guards were killed and another was wounded in the rescue operation, Antioquia state Gov. Juan Gomez said. RCN radio said at least six died in the shootout.
Forbes magazine once listed Escobar as one of the world’s wealthiest men, with a fortune estimated at between $2 billion and $5 billion.
Judicial authorities had been diligently collecting evidence against Escobar, and a conviction was reportedly near in the 1986 murder of a newspaper publisher. This may have been one of the reasons for the attempted transfer to a more secure prison.
Escobar’s so-called Medellin Cartel, an alliance of major drug traffickers based mainly in Medellin, waged an on-and-off terrorist war against Colombia’s Establishment in the years before the kingpin turned himself in. Among assassinations blamed on the cartel was the 1989 murder of front-running presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galan.
Galan’s death ushered in intensified police action against the cartel, and drug lords responded with a declaration of all-out war against the government. Terrorist acts in late 1989 included the bombing of a domestic jetliner that killed at least 107 people.
In December, 1989, the government won a round, tracking down and killing Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, Escobar’s most ruthless trafficking partner. The cartel then went on a long rampage against police.
Rodrigo Losada, a prominent researcher and analyst of Colombian affairs, speculated Wednesday evening that if Escobar is indeed now at large, he may launch a new barrage of terrorist bombings or killings.
“If he has escaped, because the government will pursue him--and not only the government but probably the DEA--I’m afraid that in some form the war will resume,” Losada said in a telephone interview.
Times staff writer William R. Long in Buenos Aires contributed to this article.